JOSQUIN des Prez: Missa “L’homme armé” sexti toni • Ave Maria • Inviolata, integra et casta es, Maria • Absalon fili mi • Stabat mater
:: Skinner/Alamire [Kölner Fest für Alte Musik 2017] digital radio broadcast recording
This is the first half of the closing program of Kölner Fest für Alte Musik 2017; it opens with the most compelling account I’ve heard of the original “L’homme armé” song, featuring a wonderfully bass-y bass who makes Tony the Tiger sound like a girlie-man—it’s g-r-r-reat! The mass is performed minus the Credo movement but plus several of the Josquin’s finest motets.
Alamire is a mixed ensemble, using female sopranos and mezzo-sopranos (no countertenors) on high, and it seems to employ two voices per part by default, expanding some or all parts to three or contracting to one as seems appropriate. The group is in excellent voice and sings with studio-like control and precision throughout, but there’s a certain one-size-fits-all sameness to the interpretations and less live frisson/sense of occasion than I was hoping for. The mass nevertheless responds well to the approach, especially the Santus and Agnus Dei, but the motets, however well sung, come off as a bit streamlined and undercharacterized. Even without the Credo, this is probably the most convincing account of the Sexti toni that I’ve heard, but the Credo’s absence gnaws at the completist in me.
As with its studio recordings, Alamire is recorded relatively closely and dryly with little blending, so clarity is excellent and individual voices easy to discern. The overall vocal balance slightly favors the higher voices.
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Bohuslav MARTINŮ: String Quartet No. 5 (1938)
:: Panocha Quartet [Supraphon ’79]
This is Martinů’s weightiest chamber work and a freakishly good anomaly among his seven quartets—an “unexpected masterpiece” as some liner notes put it. It’s often deemed the chamber-music counterpart to the contemporaneous Double Concerto, both being highly wrought (unusual for Martinů), earnestly passionate works inspired by the composer’s ill-fated relationship with a much younger woman; this, of course, is in the time-honored tradition of Janáček and countless others before him and Shostakovich and countless others after him—aging composers are a randy but romantically inept lot. The work is rife with elements of personal anguish and frustration and strife of the kind found in Janáček’s “Intimate Letters,” but they’re expressed not in the wildly temperamental and volatile manner of the impetuous old Moravian, but in the relentless, long-suffering, run-over-by-one-tank-after-another-after-another rhetorical manner of Shostakovich—but within a framework more suggestive of Bartók. (I exaggerate grossly only because it’s a hell of a lot easier than being veracious and making fine distinctions.) The most Martinůesque moment in the work comes a minute into the first movement when the otherwise agitated and insistent music unexpectedly gives way to a sort of ecstatic sigh somewhat similar to the high-flying theme that appears about 3'15" into the first movement of “Fantaisies symphoniques” (1953) via the Ančerl/CzPO recording [Supraphon ’56]. The Adagio second movement sounds like anguished “night music” punctuated by eerie pizzicato, which is unsettlingly sparing and not quite predictable, even morphing into quickly-stroked bowed notes for a spell. The rhythmically motivated Allegro vivo third movement has a scherzoish feel and alternates/morphs between forcefully trenchant music and delicately trenchant music, with a brief haunting by the eerie pizzicato of the second movement. The downcast, almost funeral atmosphere of the Lento fourth/final movement is interrupted for a time by a relatively disturbed and agitated middle section before returning to finish out the work in a less downcast but no less despairing temperament.
The Panocha Quartet gives savvily and suavely negotiated, deftly pointed and inflected, beautifully balanced and phrased performances that tend to generate greater inner tension, a richer atmosphere, and a more compelling dramatic narrative than other groups. The playing isn’t gentle or smoothed over, but I can’t help but wish it were a degree or two more forcefully incisive/trenchant in the more rhythmically vigorous music—the Martinů Quartet [Naxos ’95] is better in this respect, but at too great a cost to other areas that I value. The recorded sound is a bit opaque and constricted but otherwise pretty good.